In the midst of his own difficulties with transitioning to young adulthood, Holden imagines himself as a kind of savior who can protect younger kids from the pains of growing up. Holden feels deeply drawn to children. When he sees a young boy walking in the street and singing to himself, the sight immediately cheers Holden up: “It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed anymore.” The boy is singing “if a body catch a body coming through the rye,” a song which inspires Holden’s fantasy of standing in a rye field where children are playing, keeping them from falling off a cliff. However, later, Phoebe corrects Holden that the song’s actual lyrics are, “if a body meet a body coming through the rye.” When Holden fantasizes about becoming “the catcher in the rye,” he imagines himself preserving the innocence of childhood. Holden may also wish to save others because he’s failed to save Allie and he’s failing to save himself. The power of Holden’s guilt and of his drive for self-preservation help explain the strength of his attachment to the catcher imagery.
In Chapter 24 Holden wakes up to Mr. Antolini touching his head, and he thinks his former teacher is trying to molest him. Although the reader has no definite way to tell whether Holden reads the situation correctly, it seems likely that Mr. Antolini is not making a pass at him. For one thing, Holden has consistently proven himself an unreliable judge of character. He frequently makes snap judgments that lack sufficient grounding in reality, particularly regarding issues related to sexuality. Holden has deep-seated anxiety about his sexuality, and he frequently deflects that anxiety by projecting homosexual desires onto other male characters. This may explain why Holden has such a sudden shift in his perception of Mr. Antolini. Nevertheless, it remains possible that Mr. Antolini’s caress does have a sexual undertone. If Holden is such a poor judge of character, there’s no reason his original impression of Mr. Antolini as a nonthreatening adult couldn’t be wrong. Furthermore, the normal boundary between student and teacher already seems blurry when Holden arrives at the Antolinis’ apartment late, after an alcohol-fueled party. But regardless of the truth about Mr. Antolini’s intentions, the panic attack Holden experiences after the incident is certainly real.
The obvious reason Holden leaves Pencey is that he’s flunking out. Not only has he failed all of his classes except for English, but he’s also just come back from New York, where his fencing team had to forfeit their matches because he lost their equipment on the subway. Seeing no reason to stay on campus and wallow in humiliation, he simply leaves. But Holden’s motivation for running away also stems from other frustrations having to do with the culture of Pencey. All of Pencey’s pupils come from wealthy families, and Holden finds the atmosphere of his school stifling. He expresses this sentiment in the first chapter: “The more expensive a school is, the more crooks it has.” Whether or not Holden’s perceptions of his peers are accurate, he clearly feels unable to connect with them. He therefore runs away from Pencey because it represents a place of profound loneliness.
No. Holden’s depression, along with his unacknowledged issues with sexuality, keep him from having sex with Sunny. When he returns to the hotel and agrees to a stranger’s offer to send a prostitute to his room, Holden immediately regrets it. He calls the situation a “big mess,” and admits that he only said yes because he wasn’t in his right mind: “When you’re feeling very depressed, you can’t even think.” Before Sunny arrives, Holden contemplates his history of failed sexual experiences. He confesses to being a virgin and offers a vague explanation, stating that “something always happens” that stops him before consummating the sexual act. When Sunny eventually arrives and undresses, Holden shuts down. “I know you’re supposed to feel pretty sexy when somebody gets up and pulls their dress over their head,” Holden says, “but I didn’t. . . . I felt much more depressed than sexy.” Although Holden attributes his hang-up to depression, the reader can also intuit Holden’s unspoken issues with sexuality when he shifts the blame from himself to Sunny: “She was depressing.” Instead of being depressed himself, Holden insists that Sunny is making him depressed, and uses this as an excuse to shut down the encounter.
With his only social engagements of the day having gone terribly, Holden’s emotional state begins to unravel quickly. Immediately after Carl leaves him at the Wicker Bar, Holden stays on until one in the morning, getting drunk and flirting with other patrons. He even calls Sally, waking her up in the hopes of making amends for their date. But Holden’s evident inebriation gets a chilly reception from Sally, and he hangs up. Depressed and disconnected as ever, Holden leaves the bar and seeks refuge in Central Park. He goes looking for the lagoon he’s mentioned at various points in the novel, the one whose population of ducks disappears in the winter. Still drunk and unable to navigate in the dark night, Holden struggles to locate the lagoon. When he finds the lagoon, he’s so cold he imagines he’s dying from pneumonia. Holden has an elaborate fantasy about his own funeral. He images how crushed his mother would be, since she hasn’t yet gotten over Allie’s death. Holden’s dark thoughts in this scene indicate his deeply troubled state of mind.
The setting for The Catcher in the Rye includes Pencey Prep, an exclusive boarding school that Holden attends in New Jersey, and New York City, where the majority of the story transpires. The post–World War II era of the late 1940s and early 1950s also plays a significant role in the story. Both time and place directly impact Holden’s perspective on society and the world around him, specifically regarding social class, commercialization, the war, and mental health. At the very beginning and end of the novel, Holden also references a mental health facility near Hollywood, California, from which he is narrating—an important clue that hints at Holden’s possible mental illness.
While Salinger never provides a specific diagnosis, references to Holden’s mental instability are clear throughout the novel, and the reader could easily make the connection that Holden suffers from some combination of depression, anxiety, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For example, as the novel opens, Holden narrates, “I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.” Additional comments from Holden and other characters regarding Holden’s mental state further confirm his mental illness. In the novel’s final chapter, Holden reveals that he is writing from inside a mental hospital.
Holden wears the red hunting hat as a symbol of individuality, youthfulness, and confidence. However, he often avoids wearing the hat in public, demonstrating his fear of being condemned for his individuality. He says, “I’d put on my red hunting cap when I was in the cab, just for the hell of it, but I took it off before I checked in. I didn’t want to look like a screwball or something.” Holden wavers between a cool confidence and a fear of being different, but ultimately loves this hat and how it makes him feel. The hat even plays a symbolic role toward the end of the novel as Phoebe “took out my red hunting hat and put it on my head,” an act that seems to encourage Holden to be strong.
Jane never actually appears in the novel, but Holden repeatedly mentions her and clearly indicates how important she is to him. Holden and Jane met and spent a lot of time together when their families stayed in the same neighborhood for summer vacation, and, ever since, Holden has felt respect and adoration for Jane. He explains that she is “the only one, outside my family, that I ever showed Allie’s baseball mitt to” and “You never even worried, with Jane . . . [a]ll you knew was, you were happy. You really were.” Even though time and distance have come between Holden and Jane, she seems to be one of the few girls Holden both admires and finds attractive, which is why he gets so heated when he thinks Stradlater has disrespected Jane.
Like many of Holden’s relationships, his relationship with his younger sister, Phoebe, is complicated. However, Holden and Phoebe are very close, and Phoebe seems to know Holden better than anyone else and accepts him exactly as he is. Holden explains to the reader, “You’d like her. I mean if you tell old Phoebe something, she knows exactly what the hell you’re talking about.” Holden cherishes Phoebe’s innocence and youthfulness, and he desperately tries to protect these traits. At the same time, even though Phoebe is six years younger than Holden, she seems to be the more mature one in their relationship as she recognizes that Holden is his own worst enemy.
Allie’s death greatly affects Holden in the jaded way Holden looks at life, in how he struggles to connect with people, and in the way he feels the need to protect youthful innocence. Holden says, “He got leukemia and died . . . You’d have liked him. . . . I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. . . . I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon . . . I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it.” Holden’s clear admiration for his younger brother, his guilt from not being able to protect him, and his extreme reaction to his death prove how greatly Allie’s death affected him. Readers might wonder if this tragic event triggered Holden’s mental decline.
Holden characterizes “phonies” as people who are dishonest or fake about who they really are, or people who play a part just to fit into a society that Holden questions. Therefore, Holden hates “phonies” because they represent everything he fears or fights against, such as adulthood, conformity, and commercialism. He describes this hatred when he says, “You never saw so many phonies in all your life, everybody smoking their ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could hear and know how sharp they were. . . . You should’ve seen the way they said hello. . . . It was nauseating. The funny part was, they probably met each other just once, at some phony party.” Everywhere Holden goes, he distrusts the insincere intentions and phony actions of his peers as they navigate adulthood and try to fit into society’s expectations.
Holden is obsessed with the ducks at the Central Park Lagoon because they symbolize youthful innocence while demonstrating that change isn’t permanent, and survival is possible even in the harshest environment. Perhaps Holden has happy childhood memories of visiting the ducks or he remembers the ducks from a time before his brother died, but ultimately, from the very beginning of the novel, Holden thinks about where the ducks at the Central Park Lagoon go during the winter. He says, “I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over,” and later he mentions, “I still didn’t know if they were around or not. . . . Then, finally, I found [the lagoon] . . . but I didn’t see a single duck.” Holden desires to find and connect with the innocence and unchanging solace that the ducks represent, but when he doesn’t, his mental health deteriorates.
Even though Holden is never specific about where he is while narrating the story, the first page and the last page of the novel provide clues that Holden is undergoing treatment for a mental breakdown in a psychiatric hospital near Hollywood, California. As the novel opens, Holden says, “I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.” At the close of the novel, he ends his narration saying, “I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I’m supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don’t feel like it.” By bookending the novel with these statements, Salinger reveals that Holden is narrating from a mental health facility.
Holden does not kill himself in the novel but definitely mentions suicide several times as his mental struggle plays out in the story. In fact, there are clues that Holden narrates the story from a mental institution when he first mentions that he “felt so lonesome, all of a sudden” and “wished [he] was dead” and that he “felt like jumping out the window” after his big fight with Stradlater in the Pencey Prep dorms. He mentions suicide multiple times while in New York City, once after his altercation with the prostitute and Old Maurice, saying, “I felt like jumping out the window. I probably would’ve done it, too, if I’d been sure somebody’d cover me up as soon as I landed.” Even though Holden teeters on the brink of dark depression and suicide throughout the novel, he ultimately seems to grasp how to survive, looking for ways to come back from his mental breakdown.